I first met Dame Paula Rego on her inclusion in a School of London exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in 2000.
I remember seeing her towering pastel “The Wedding Guest,” which Rego had said memorialized the moment she first consummated her relationship, as a virgin, with her late husband, the painter Victor Willing. In her telling, he saw her at a party, came into a private bedroom, and told her to remove her knickers.
Rego, in and outside of her pictures, gutted you.
Born in 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, Rego was raised by an antifascist family and enrolled in a finishing school in London at 16. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in the 1950s, where she met Willing. At the Slade, Rego began to paint in oil, a preferred tool of the academy. She later transitioned to acrylic, a medium which combined the fluidity of oil with the drawing possibilities of dry materials.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Rego’s work hovered between figuration and abstraction and called to surrealism and dada, in combinations of oil painting and collage. In 1985, Lila Nunes came to live with Rego’s family as an au pair. Nunes quickly became a stand-in for the artist and her primary model for the rest of Rego’s life. Rego’s partner, Tony Rudolph and her children, Victoria, Caroline and Nick, also appear as characters.
The late ‘80s were a pivotal time for her work, beginning with series featuring nightmarish rabbits, bears, and monkeys, which saw her paintings transform into some of her most beloved pictures, such as “The Maids” (1987) and “The Dance” (1988), which included a portrait of Willing dancing with another woman and looking out at the viewer.
Willing died shortly before “The Dance” was completed. She later memorialized him, lying in her arms, debilitated by multiple sclerosis, in her 1999 triptych “The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth.” Only in the ‘90s did Rego turn to drawing with chalk pastel.
Rego was inarguably the greatest drawer and printmaker of our time. Throughout her life, she used printmaking and its haunting chiaroscuro, which she often hand-colored, as a primary tool of picture making. She drew herself, her desires, fears, and traumas, in pictures tinged with lust, sweatiness and frantic mark making. She captured the heavy bodies and stories of women.
Sexuality, violence, and the power of women dominated her work. Rego drew women in rooms, over buckets, and alone on tables, curled in pain for a series on abortion in the late ‘90s, in reaction to Portugal’s failed referendum to loosen draconian abortion laws. Her drawings are credited with bringing about a second referendum in 2007, which led to legal changes.
Rego taught me that telling stories could be an act of feminist subversion and that many people and characters from literature could protect me as stand-ins. Throughout her life, she worked from literature: Portuguese novels, fairy and folk tales, feminist stories and books with atypical female heroines. Even in using these vehicles, she ultimately, and always, painted and drew from life, literally and figuratively.
She advocated for the darkest corners to be shown and she delighted in the danger and pulse-racing and daring devilry that the women in her pictures flirted so heavily with.
In her Hampstead studio, tableaux were arranged throughout – her easel set with large-scale paper backed with aluminum, awaiting the actors for her stages. Her “Dog Women,” from the mid-‘90s, liberated the female figure – these stocky women scratched, raised their legs and indulged in bodily freedom. These are some of her most arresting portraits; her (and our) stories of pain, age, and shifting identity are embodied in the raw limbs and braying heads of women scuttling on the floor. Sex was never precious for Rego: it seemed to be just another story to watch unfold.
In conversations in and outside of her studio, she was at turns bashful, provocative, brilliantly funny and mischievous.
The last time I visited her in the studio, I knew it would be our last. She took me by the hand into a small room with her girlhood sketchbooks, showing me intimate drawings she had done very early on in her life. We didn’t speak, but she clasped my hand tightly while flipping through the pages. She always began her letters to me detailing the violence and sexuality that she saw in my pictures, saying that these were much after her own heart. In closing, she signed off that my pictures gave her hope.
I believe that she wanted her pictures and the ways in which she told women’s stories to find new voices in future generations.
In 2021, the Tate in coordination with the Kunstmuseum Den Haag and the Museo Picasso Málaga honored Rego with a staggering retrospective curated by Elena Crippa. Hers was a generosity of spirit, combined with a brutality of storytelling, that will echo louder and louder, forever into the future.